In her job interview in 2004, Lydia Cowser cautioned department chair that she was an overachiever. She certainly is living up to that promise.

When Lydia Cowser began her job as an administrative associate in the Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures almost four years ago, she immediately set out to learn as much about foreign languages as she could.

She began by taking Spanish classes.

"I made it my goal when I first started working in the department to learn a few foreign expressions in each language so that I could say simple things to the faculty like good morning, goodbye or thanks," she says. "I believe learning a foreign language and possession of good cross-cultural communication skills is very important in a foreign-language office. It helps me effectively to communicate with international faculty, students and visiting scholars with confidence."

This past summer, she applied for a professional development grant that partially supported 10 days of language and cultural immersion in Mexico and returned from her time abroad eager to apply her language skills and with a greater appreciation for foreign cultures.

Cowser's outstanding record serving the department and her desire to learn and grow has led to her selection as January's Employee of the Month.

"The tone that she establishes in our workplace due to her own broadening cultural view is key to the positive climate in our department," says Sheri Spaine Long, Ph.D., Cowser's department chair. "She cheerfully practices Spanish in the workplace. This helps facilitate communication with visiting dignitaries, professors and exchange students and lightens the workload of the faculty who would normally have to step in and provide translations services to complete tasks."

Helping hand

The Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures is a steadily growing department that operates at a fast pace. Cowser loves that each day is different, and says she has a unique role.

"It requires that I have positive energy, patience, cultural sensitivity, be able to multi-task and, in all honesty, desire to learn new skills," she says. "Things are constantly changing, and you have to be adaptable."

Lamia Zayzafoon, Ph.D., says Cowser is the backbone of the department.

"I have seen her plan departmental weekly meetings and back-to-school workshops, handle student inquiries, and answer in a timely manner our individual faculty needs such as ordering books, inviting guest speakers, assisting in grant applications and travel reimbursements," Zayzafoon says. "I have seen Lydia stay in her office beyond working hours to finish an urgent job or help a distressed faculty member beat a grant deadline."

Problem-solving has proven to be another strength of Cowser's.

The department developed learning outcomes and measurements for all graduating majors a few years ago in response to a review by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The department needed a way to keep track of student progress, to organize the results and to have the information available on file.

"The task was a daunting one, and in truth, I did not know where to begin," says John Moore, Ph.D., assistant professor of Spanish. "It was Ms. Cowser who created a system to store, update and retrieve these files and to keep all of the students separate.

"Although she made the process look easy, developing this project took much time, talent and effort. Thanks to her expertise and ongoing efforts, maintaining the learning outcomes now truly is easy."

More to come

Cowser says she wants to be an asset to her department. One of the ways she says she can do that is to continue to provide as much support as she can in as many areas as she can.

"I believe the driving force in providing good support to a department is being an honest employee at all times, having a cheerful, positive attitude regardless of the task at hand and finding joy in serving others," she says.

Giving is important to Cowser, too. Becoming fluent in Spanish has enhanced her spiritual volunteer community service with Spanish-speaking people in the local area. And she's not content to stop with learning one new language.

"I would like to learn Chinese or Japanese after I become fluent in Spanish," she says. "There are so many cultures, languages and wonderful, talented people here in our department. It is such a delight to work for one of the best department chairs and faculty on the campus."